At heart August Wilson’s writing is part of broader tradition of family plays in American theatre and while his subjects are not necessarily the traditional groups of relatives gathered around the table for a fateful weekend or forced to reassess their lives in the wake of tragedy (such as Apologia or Appropriate), Wilson builds rudimentary families, often groups of men drawn together by their jobs whose complex dynamics, loaded interactions and status conflicts reflect the conventions of those often grand narratives about family that US playwrights return to again and again. Wilson tempers this solemnity with an examination of working class aspiration, history and hardship, placing his group often on the cusp of social change where the mixed age range of his characters brings both promise and disillusionment.
Jitney, revived at the Old Vic in a production by Tinuke Craig and officially opening later this week, is a piece that took the best part of 40 years to make it to Broadway in late 2016 after decades of smaller productions around America and at the National Theatre in 2001. Part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh collection, Jitney‘s concern with the cost of gentrification and the local heritage destroyed in the name of progress exists through the interactions of eight men, mostly taxi drivers and a regular customer, over the course of three days in which their livelihoods and their neighbourhood come under threat from redevelopers.
Thematically, this is a play about the black working class struggle, not directly against racism although much can be inferred from the context and conversations, but with their economic and personal circumstances as individuals try to get by while putting some kind of stake in the ground in order to claim even the smallest patch of it for themselves. Cab office boss Jim Becker is the manifestation of that desire for goodness and decency, of working hard to provide for his family and playing along with the system all to earn a fragment of financial and moral independence. What the sacrifices and endeavours of men like Becker are ultimately worth is the question that Wilson poses in Jitney as this quite diverse group face a collective ending of the disharmonious life they have known together.
In this sense, Jitney also links to more recent plays like Lynne Nottage’s Sweat that examines the destructive consequences of redundancy and deindustrialisation in a rust belt town with no other options, and even to David Hare’s latest Straight Line Crazy, still playing at the Bridge Theatre, which takes the opposite perspective to Wilson, focusing on the architecture of city planning in New York in the mid-twentieth century – concluding shortly before the period in which Jitney is set – that tore through working class districts to create freeways. Together these works comment on the powerlessness of communities to resist what becomes an inevitable future, but in giving them a voice, Wilson expands on the rooting of these groups in quite geographically-specific areas, looking back at the lives they have known but also forwards to the albeit limited expectations of what they want to become.
And to do this, Wilson creates a pseudo-familial structure, essentially trapping eight characters together in the same room for nearly three hours of performance. They come and go, collect fares for what are perhaps infeasibly short journeys, but are continually drawn back together to their work hub, a simple common room office where they wait for the phone call that will take them out again, applying the democratic ‘cab rank’ rule to maintain order and fairness. It is a business venture that Wilson deliberately gives them all a stake in, a kind of co-op of independent cabbies headed by Becker who collects subs once a month, sets fare pricing and the firm rules but each man owns his own car and, in a crucial scene in the second half, they make important decisions collectively.
Within that sometimes quite loose structure, Jitney becomes a fluid character study exploring the personalities and often fraught interactions between the men who spend too much time in the same place but really know very little about each other. They gossip, speculate and spread hearsay, they bicker and judge, there are small scale confederacies, violent altercations, resentments and cruelty while Wilson peppers the discussions with plenty of secrets, lies and revelations that emerge across nearly three hours of performance all of which are typical of the family dynamic play and culminates in a growing emotional connection to the group that somehow weathers its many storms together.
Craig’s production is particularly good at creating that complex interaction, the bristling tension between particular individuals whose combustible personalities flare and rage across the play, while balancing that with the more experienced old hands whose attempts at diplomacy and ability to take life as it comes create interesting tonal shifts that Craig manages especially well. But with lots of people to introduce and a faithful version of the script, it takes a little too long for the audience to settle into the show, to understand who everybody is and connect with the story arc – and even to hear it fully for a time. Jitney has two of these – the imminent closure of the cab office and the return of Becker’s son from a 20-year term in prison but neither generates sufficient heat in the 90-minute first half to give the production any anticipatory sense of direction or feeling of impending catastrophe to drive it purposefully forward.
Much of that is Wilson’s fault, a long opening scene introducing the characters in quick turn arounds as well as their working practices and routines becomes almost redundant with little of what is said or seen having any major significance to the plot. And there is a tendency to linger a touch too long in some of the duologues that cut through the fast-paced work of the cab rank, slowing the action to focus more intently on a particular interaction and the lives it represents. These begin as gripping and insightful scenes but can become circular in their discussion, occasionally repeating and verifying information the audience already has which unnecessarily prolongs more than one scenario.
The final third of the play is tighter as internal and external events come to a head but even here the balance of drama is a little off kilter with more time devoted to duologues, yet a major plot development occurs rapidly offstage between scenes with little opportunity to fully absorb its aftermath or even to question the motive of the character involved. In a story where relatively little actually happens and with not much plot as such, it seems a shame not to investigate this part of the play in more detail or to understand any potential ambiguities in what has been reported. Did things coincidentally happen in this way or, given the difficulties and pressure placed on the individual, was there greater agency at work? Just bad luck and a neat ending to the show, or a pre-determined act of sacrifice and despair?
Wil Johnson’s pivotal performance as Becker leaves you to wonder about the effects of this experience on the most decent man in the office. Striving all his life for the minimum comforts of job, home and family, Becker is a character without unlikely ambition, wanting nothing more than daily stability and the chance to give his child a little more than he had. Johnson has some terrific interactions with returning son Booster (Leemore Marrett Jr) and his fellow cabbies who break his simple rules and cause discord in the office. There is a grand tragedy to his life as a result, filled with the anguish and disappointment of the last 20 years which, for all his efforts and desire for independence, leave him unable to control the wider socio-economic forces shaping his life and narrowing his choices – a key theme for all characters in Jitney – that add particular ambiguity to the play’s conclusion.
Sule Rimi is equally commanding as the volatile Turnbo, a maverick creation whose comedic persona reveals an underlying tendency to violence. We learn relatively little about Turnbo’s history but he imposes himself on this office, still part of the family unit but handled carefully by the others. Although not by Solomen Israel’s Darnell known as “Youngblood” whose altercation with Turnbo over gossip simmers throughout the play. Like Becker, Youngblood is looking for a stable path ahead and while Israel hides that under layers of bravado and machismo, there is a melancholy beneath that partly emerges from those around him who think he’s too young to throw his life away driving jitneys but also from the character’s own fears about life’s continually moving goalposts that might trap him here forever.
This is an almost exclusively male world including Geoff Aymer’s rational old hand Doub, Nnabiko Ejimofor’s street smart Shealey who utilises the office for his romantic exchanges and gambling business, as well as Tony Marshall’s alcoholic Fielding clinging on by a thread while pining the absence of his errant wife 22 years on. Amongst this Leanne Henlon makes quite the impression as Darnell’s wife Rena who arrives to make her views about her man’s behaviour known to him. Henlon’s performance is refreshing, cutting through the fog of masculinity to drag them back to the reality of family and commitment, expounding on the wider consequences for their lives beyond the cab office. In a couple of great scenes, Henlon establishes Rena’s own desire for self-improvement and a refusal to take any nonsense as she bats away interference from the others and makes you long for a few more female characters to keep the men in check.
Staged by Alex Lowde in a representative but realistic space, there is a deliberate sense of imprisonment, even claustrophobia in the 70s bleached wood panelled cabin with no windows beyond a frosted glass pane in the door. No one can see out or in, disconnecting the characters from the real changes happening around them – given a literal interpretation by Lowde in a large frame around the action onto which Ravi Deepres’s video projects the Pittsburg streets and a dominant city plan that shifts from construction to a sea of new builds after the interval. All of this reiterating the blindness of these men to what’s really happening to their city and their livelihoods.
Jitney is a long night, one that could afford to cut 20 minutes or more of material without affecting the overall story, leaving a slightly slicker, more impactful piece behind that doesn’t compromise character insight. There are real moments of magic in Jitney, filled with the sorrow of endings for all of the people passing through the cab office. What even happens to their small community business in the end, Wilson places that in a context of huge and unstoppable change that this little patch of the past cannot resist forever. Something is coming for all of them and, whether they see it or not, Wilson knows the battle is lost before it begins – that is the power of Jitney and the great tragedy that Becker’s car service will never escape.